While Palestinian, American and European leaders worry how Israel’s shift to the right will negatively impact the peace process, perhaps the only ones who need to fear an Israeli right-wing government is the Israeli right wing, which is generally opposed to giving away land for peace.
History shows that the major land-for-peace giveaways in Israel have been undertaken by right-wing Israeli governments and politicians who have campaigned against dividing the land. The left has traditionally advocated “land-for-peace” policies, but has hesitated to follow through.
The election of 65 right-wing parliamentarians to the Israeli parliament on Tuesday versus 55 centrists and left-wingers should enable Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to build a coalition government, presumably of hawkish parties. This drew predictable reactions from Palestinians and foreign peace-process negotiators.
But they need not worry -- yet. Israeli voters have a mercifully short memory that politicians appreciate.
“There’s a famous phrase of Israeli politicians, ‘I never promised to keep my promise,’” said Jonathan Rynhold, senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Netanyahu ran a hard-line campaign against dividing Jerusalem and giving away land and is an outspoken critic of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. But it was Netanyahu who, during his previous tenure as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, ceded Hebron, one of Judaism’s holiest cities, to the Palestinians as part of the Oslo Accords.
“The decision to honor the terms of the Oslo agreement and withdraw from Hebron marks an important turning point for the right wing in Israel,” Joel Peters wrote for Middle East Review of International Affairs in 1997. “Netanyahu and the Likud have traveled a long way over the past year.”
Despite initial opposition to Oslo, Likud and Netanyahu began the process that locked Israel into negotiations with the PLO and further territorial concessions in the West Bank.
“Perhaps Netanyahu has matured as a leader but, the old adage, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,’ implies Likud might have recruited a fresh face,” Daniel Pipes, author and director of the Middle East Forum, writes on his website. Pipes reported in 1999 that Netanyahu was in secret talks to give away the strategic Golan Heights, another sticking point of the Right.
“The prime minister, in contrast to both his hardline image and his promises to supporters, was ready to make big concessions to (Syrian President Hafez al-) Assad for a peace agreement from which Israel would get diplomatic recognition, trade, and other attributes of peace,” Pipes reported in The New Republic that same year.
Menachem Begin, one of the nation’s most highly regarded leaders and founder of the Likud party, made the first sweeping Jewish withdrawal as a result of the Camp David Accords.
In the spring of 1982, despite widespread protest in Israel, Begin withdrew from the Sinai and evacuated the Jewish settlements there. Most of the 5,000 settlers had voluntarily moved, but some resisted. Ironically, it was then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon who was sent to forcibly remove them.
Sharon is the most recent example of right-wing territorial compromise. A fierce military general, who claims in his autobiography to have promoted Israel’s settlement movement, Sharon ran against Amram Mitzna who called for Israel’s withdrawal from Jewish settlements in Gaza.
Likud pounded Mitzna’s Labor party - winning 38 seats to Labor’s 19 - in the 2003 elections precisely because of its opposition to the disengagement. But within two years, Sharon spearheaded the Gaza withdrawal, causing, among other things, a split within the Likud. Sharon went on to form the Kadima (Forward) party and paved the way for Netanyahu’s return to head of Likud.
But this hasn’t stopped the world from worrying. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on the international community to impose upon a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu the same diplomatic conditions it imposes on Hamas, a terrorist organization.
European leaders expressed fear over the rise of a Netanyahu-led, right-wing Knesset.
“That seems the most realistic outcome, sadly, although I would like to see a progressive government committed to the peace process,” said Andrew Gwynne, a Labor Party legislator in Britain.
A right-wing coalition also seems to worry the United States: “There would be great unease,” a Capitol Hill source told The Jerusalem Post.
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